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Bounty's final hours: a 'haze of war'

The investigation into the sinking of the tall ship Bounty during Hurricane Sandy is far from complete, but documents obtained by Soundings shed some light on her night-long struggle to survive against overwhelming odds.

A Coast Guard hearing on the sinking of the Bounty convenes in February.

The 180-foot wooden ship went down 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C., Oct. 29, her fate sealed by engine and generator failures that left her adrift through the night without enough power to pump out the seawater leaking into her bilge. Settling lower and lower in the water, Bounty struggled until about 4:30 a.m., when she rolled on her side in a large wave, throwing overboard her 16 crewmembers, already bundled in survival suits and abandoning ship.

Thirteen of them made their way to 25-person life rafts and a 14th remained in the water until about 6 a.m., when two Coast Guard helicopters from Elizabeth City, N.C., plucked all of them from 18-foot seas in rescue baskets.

Two other crewmembers died: Capt. Robin Walbridge, 63, Bounty’s master of 17 years, and Claudene Christian, 42, great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Fletcher Christian, the mate who seized command from Capt. William Bligh in the 1789 mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty, on whose design the tall ship was based. The Coast Guard recovered Christian’s body later in the day. Walbridge remained missing after an exhaustive search.

The Coast Guard convenes a formal hearing Feb. 12-21 at the Renaissance Portsmouth Hotel and Waterfront Conference Center in Portsmouth, Va., to gather facts and ultimately make recommendations to improve the safety and operation of other tall ships. The National Transportation Safety Board is also participating in the investigation.

The documents acquired by Soundings through a freedom of information request detail the search-and-rescue operation. What follows are edited excerpts from 256 pages of transcripts of email and radio transmissions between the Coast Guard, the Bounty and Bounty’s owners, and Coast Guard situation reports and search records.

Bounty’s crew and home base, as well as Coast Guard aircraft crews, watchstanders and command staff, wrestled with the unfolding tragedy on the night of Oct. 28 and early the next morning in what one Coast Guard observer described as the “haze of war.”

Coast Guard Summary, morning of sinking: At approximately 2100 local time Sunday, the 180-foot tall ship Bounty with 16 persons on board reported they were taking on water but had the situation under control. Due to communications difficulties, an Air Station Elizabeth City C-130 was launched at 2134. At 0426, the vessel capsized, and the crew was forced to abandon ship. The crew was reported to be wearing survival suits and attempting to board life rafts. Air Station Elizabeth City launched two MH-60 helicopters. Fourteen people were recovered from life rafts and from the water by approximately 1730. Two crewmembers remain missing.

Bounty’s situation unclear, communications with the ship difficult.

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• 10:15 p.m. Oct. 28, Bounty email to home base via high-frequency radio: We are taking on water. Will probably need assistance in the morning. Sat phone is not working very good. We have activated the EPIRB. We are not in danger tonight, but if conditions don’t improve on the boat we will be in danger tomorrow. We can only run the generator for a short time. I just found out that the filters you [home base] got were the wrong filters. [These likely were fuel filters. If so, the generator’s filters may have been fouled, and the engineer would not have been able to replace them if he had the wrong filters. — Editor’s note] Let me know when you have contacted the USCG so we can shut the EPIRB off. The boat is doing great, [but] we can’t dewater.

[Editor’s note: The pumps on Bounty were electric, probably AC powered by the generator. Chris Barksdale, the ship’s engineer, told the German magazine Der Spiegel after the sinking that Bounty had two generators and that although he managed to keep one of them running, the power from that one kept fluctuating — perhaps so badly that the pumps couldn’t operate at full capacity — and in any event the pumps seemed to be clogged, Barksdale said.]

• 10:30 p.m. Oct. 28, Coast Guard situation assessment: Owner of [Bounty] reports he received email from Bounty reporting no danger tonight. Vessel on generator power through morning. Not able to dewater. If situation worsens, they could be in danger. Should be OK through tomorrow. Vessel reported in seaworthy condition. If weather does not subside, Bounty will need assistance tomorrow.

• 10:55 p.m., Bounty email to home base: We are 34-07N 074-08 W [about 100 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C.], course 130 degrees, speed 2.6 knots, 17 [actually 16] people on board. I do not know how long I will be able to receive email. My first guess was that we had until morning before we would have to abandon. Seeing the water rise, I am not sure we have that long. We have two inflatable life rafts. We have activated our EPIRB.

• 11:07 p.m., Coast Guard to Bounty via home base: USCG requests you send email reply. … USCG received report from owner that VSL Bounty is not in distress. Request you energize another EPIRB or contact us if your situation worsens or you are in distress. USCG requests to establish communications with your vessel via your sat phone, HF radio or email as soon as possible. USCG can launch an aircraft to establish VHF-FM communications with you on scene tomorrow to get an update of your condition, as needed. Reply as soon as possible with an update of your situation.

• 11:09 p.m., weather: Winds ENE 60 knots, seas 20 feet, air 68 degrees F, water 68 degrees F, visibility 1 nautical mile.

• 11:24 p.m., Bounty home base to Coast Guard: This is the latest email I received from the boat: “Do they know we are in trouble? I am probably going to lose power shortly.” I guess he is concerned he will lose power. Not sure what to do next. Has the ship sent you anything?

• 11:25 p.m., Coast Guard email to Bounty via Bounty’s home base: Can you give me an update on rate of flooding and your current situation?

• 11:34 p.m., home base to Coast Guard: It sounds like it is getting worse. … I am not sure if he still has email access because he emailed me to tell me that he didn’t know how much longer he would have power.

• 11:47 p.m., Bounty to Coast Guard via home base: We have just set off the second EPIRB.

• 11:54 p.m., Coast Guard report: Received a second EPIRB from Bounty.

• 11:55 p.m., Sector Command Center to C-130 overflying Bounty: Bounty’s situation is worsening. They are losing power and may abandon ship.

Coast Guard log of preparations for search and rescue.

• 9:05 p.m. Oct. 28: Coast Guard Sector N.C. in Wilmington received a report of a vessel taking on water with 15 or possibly 16 persons aboard at 34-11.7N 074-17.5W.

• 9:08 p.m.: Coast Guard District 1 reports: Received SAR-SAT [EPIRB] alert for vessel Bounty.

The crew of the Bounty activated two EPIRBs during the ordeal.

• 9:10 p.m.: SCC requests a C-130 from Air Station Elizabeth City [to establish communications with Bounty and provide Coast Guard with on-scene updates].

• 9:15 p.m.: C-130 preparing to launch from Air Station Elizabeth City.

• 9:21 p.m.: District 5 Command Center briefed that there are no blue forces [Navy] in the vicinity of HMS Bounty.

• 9:22 p.m.: District 5 ran a surface picture [computer graphic] of AMVER assets [commercial ships] in the vicinity of 34-11.7N 074-17.5 W. Nearest vessel is Torm Rosetta, call sign OYNV2. Passed information to Sector N.C. to hail vessel on high-frequency radio [to see whether it can assist in a rescue].

• 9:23 p.m.: District 5 notified SCC that AMVER [graphic] shows vessel Torm Rosetta 35 nautical miles from last known position of Bounty. SCC began callouts of Torm Rosetta on VHF and HF.

• 9:25 p.m.: Air Station Elizabeth City advises: We’re launching C-130. Estimated time of arrival 1 hour, 15 minutes.

• 9:26 p.m.: Coast Guard issues Urgent Information Marine Broadcast to mariners: A 406-mHz EPIRB was received by rescue coordination center Norfolk in position 34-11.7N 074-17.5W. Bounty, call sign WDD9114, a 180-foot tall ship, activated their EPIRB. Mariners transiting through this area are requested to check their electronic equipment and keep a sharp lookout for signs of distress. Make reports to RCC Norfolk.

• 9:26 p.m.: Coast Guard reports negative response on callouts for vessel Torm Rosetta.

• 9:29 p.m., Email from Bounty home base to Coast Guard: Here are the registration numbers for EPIRBs that are currently on board Bounty [lists three numbers]. I will send the crew list in the next email.

• 9:41 p.m.: Coast Guard notified Bounty home base that C-130 is en route to vessel’s last known position. SCC also inquired about owner’s plans to salvage vessel and assist persons on board if vessel is determined in distress. … Due to weather from Hurricane Sandy, CG does not have any assets that can tow the vessel at this time.

• 9:55 p.m.: SCC spoke to naval architect that has worked on the Bounty. The vessel recently had a stability test with the CG, came back satisfactory. Bounty is a shelter deck vessel. The weak points of the vessel are the weather deck hatches. Vessel was rebuilt less than 10 years ago. Bilge pumps are electric, so if both generators go down the vessel will not be able to keep up with the water on board.

• 10:11 p.m.: Owner of Torm Rosetta advises: Master of the Torm Rosetta said they are in really bad weather and are unable to assist at this time. They are in ballast [mode] making 5-7 knots heading east. They are pitching 25 degrees, and they need to get out of the weather.

• 11:16 p.m., Coast Guard Sector N.C. to command center: We want the EPIRB to continue to run through the night. Have the C-130 establish communications with [Bounty] to ensure the vessel does not need CG assistance at this time.

• 11:40 p.m., SCC to Air Station Elizabeth City: Briefed on current situation. Might want to discuss two helos for possibility of hoisting 17 people [actually 16].

C-130 arrives and clarifies Bounty’s situation.

• Midnight, Oct. 28: C-130 on scene.

• 12:05 a.m., Oct. 29: C-130 finds target, reports 6 feet of water on Bounty’s deck.

• 12:06 a.m.: SCC requests C-130 ask Bounty if they can steer and are stable.

• 12:08 a.m.: C-130 reports Bounty crew are donning life jackets. Vessel says if they can get water off the ship they can get it under control and make it to shore.

• 12:09 a.m.: SCC again asks if Bounty is listing and if they are able to steer [to provide a stable target for a possible pump drop].

• 12:10 a.m.: C-130 reports Bounty is heeling due to wind.

• 12:11 a.m.: C-130 confirms Bounty is drifting. [Bounty’s two 375-hp John Deere diesel engines were disabled, as well.]

• 12:12 a.m.: SCC asks C-130 for on-scene weather and if conditions are within parameters for a pump drop.

• 12:14 a.m.: C-130 reports at 9,000 feet, winds are NW at 60 knots. … At sea level, winds are NW at 40 knots, seas 18 feet.

• 12:17 a.m.: SCC asks the C-130 if they can drop a pump in 18-foot seas.

• 12:19 a.m.: C-130 advises Bounty that if their situation deteriorates further to activate [another] EPIRB.

• 12:40 a.m.: Coast Guard situation report: SCC has C-130 change altitude during the case. Low altitude so they could keep visual contact with HMS Bounty, at which time communications [with the command center] are intermittent on 2702 kHz, high altitude to establish good communications with the SCC.

• 12:22 a.m.: C-130 passes information that Bounty is on battery power, has lost its generator and the more we talk to Bounty the more power they lose.

Is dropping a pump on Bounty an option?

• 12:23 a.m.: SCC wants to know — if Bounty is dead in the water and on battery power — how the C-130 crew sees any possibility of passing a pump to the ship [dropping it close enough by parachute so Bounty’s crew can steam to it, snag its protective metal canister with a boathook and pull the pump aboard — Editor’s note].

• 12:31 a.m.: SCC trying to come up with an option to get Bounty a pump safely. SCC requested a cutter from D5. D5 is looking into availability. No surface assets immediately available or in vicinity of Bounty.

• 12:58 a.m., Coast Guard to Bounty: Closest surface asset is 10-12 hours away from your position. USCG can coordinate a planned evacuation of your vessel in the morning. Planning for this evacuation needs to start soon if this is your intent. If situation worsens and you are starting evacuation of vessel, energize another EPIRB and contact USCG. If [another]) EPIRB is energized, USCG will take that to mean evacuation of vessel has started and will respond appropriately.

• 1:12 a.m., Bounty to Coast Guard: If closest [Coast Guard] vessel is eight hours away, crew would be able to be saved, but vessel would be lost. Vessel has 6 feet of water on deck and is taking 2 feet per hour.

• 1:40 a.m., Coast Guard query: Word on the C-130 drop? Also, what is [the Bounty crew’s] apprehension level? Are they wanting to get the heck off that boat, or are they wanting to fight until it goes down?

• 1:41 a.m.: C-130 [at the scene] reports that it is too high a risk to safely drop pump.

• 1:48 a.m., Coast Guard query: Ask C-130 why the high risk … weather or other factors?

• 1:49 a.m., C-130 response: Vessel rigging, vessel dead in water, weather.

• 1:50 a.m., Coast Guard query: Does Bounty crew think that a pump would be able to keep up with leak because an H-60 [helicopter] can deliver a pump at much lower risk than hoisting people out of the water?

• 1:50 a.m.: Search and rescue mission coordinator is planning rescue operation with helicopters from Air Station Elizabeth City and possibly Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

• 2:15 a.m., Coast Guard to 5th District Incident Management Branch: Air Station Elizabeth City is looking into launching an H-60 [helicopter] to trail-line down two to three P-100 pumps to assist in dewatering the Bounty. … District 5 did not recommend launching cutter Elm, given length of transit and inclement weather.

• 2:23 a.m.: C-130 advises that Bounty reports pumps would help. Vessel is heeling with 10 feet of water on deck and taking on 2 feet an hour through the wood hull. Bounty says P100s would help, but [larger] P250s would be better.

• 2:28 a.m.: SAR mission coordinator says he would be comfortable with dropping pumps with an H-60.

The die is cast.

Editor’s note: There are no times for the following entries, but they are between 2:28 and 4:38 a.m.

• SCC to C-130: We understand that Bounty is making preparations to abandon ship at 0800 [0400 local time]. Be advised there is no surface vessel en route at this time. Is Bounty confident it will last until 0800?

• C-130 to SCC: I can only interpolate that they can make it to 0800 and are confident of that because that’s the time they passed to us. … We understand that at the present time there is no surface asset en route to their location. Do we know that a Coast Guard helicopter is en route at the present time?

• SCC to C-130: There is an H-60 en route that is going to try to put two pumps down to them. If the 60 gets on scene and is unable to pass the pumps, we will make other arrangements at that time.

• C-130 to SCC: Sounds like this vessel is not going to be able to stay out here indefinitely. Obviously, they are a 180-foot vessel, and the dewatering pumps will help, but it’s definitely not a given that [the pumps] will keep this boat afloat. So anything you can do as far as rescue assets to get them off the boat would be good, including surface assets.

• SCC to C-130: Request that you advise the Bounty that the MH-60s are not able to launch to their destination due to weather … unable to launch.

The Coast Guard rescued 14 of the ship's crewmembers.

• C-130 to SCC: Can you repeat? We just want to make sure it’s very clear. The 60 is unable to launch at this time.

• SCC to C-130: That is affirmative.

• C-130 to SCC: We request that you keep us updated when you have actionable rescue plan for Bounty so we can pass them some good news.

• SCC to C-130: We concur with them going forward with 0800 abandon ship.

• SCC to C-130: We need to pass to the vessel that we have spoken to the air station, and their only other option is going to be a mass rescue at daylight. That’s what they are showing as safe because currently we don’t show it as safe to bring an H-60 out there to drop a pump or get a surface asset to them. There is no surface asset to reach them in the time they’re requesting.

• SCC to C-130: We need to let them know we’re going to move ahead with 0800 abandon ship. If they’re comfortable with that, we want them to start making preparations for that eventuality and let them know another C-130 will come out and establish communications with them and two H-60s will come after that.

• SCC to C-130: If you need to, you can pass on to them as well that we’ve been in contact with the owner and the agent, and again crew safety is paramount. So we need to go with the time that they think is safest, especially if we’re looking at this as not a question of if the boat sinks but when the boat sinks.

• SCC to C-130: Bounty’s situation is as follows: The waterline is now at the tween deck. They have all 16 persons on deck at this time in immersion suits with their life jackets on. They have two 25-foot life rafts. The life rafts have covers. What concerns them, of course, is high winds and rafts getting away from them. We have passed to them the current action plan for two helicopters at daybreak and a C-130 overhead as relief. Bounty crew are testing the handhelds. Ship’s batteries are nearing the water, so they’ll have to switch to handhelds shortly.

• SCC to C-130: Strange as it sounds, they need to understand that legally the Coast Guard is not telling them to abandon their ship, but the vessel is going to sink because they have no way of getting any dewatering equipment. … We’re saying the safest time to [undertake the rescue operation] is during daylight hours.

• C-130 to SCC: We have received abandon ship call from the vessel Bounty. We are in descent at this time to try to get on scene and visually acquire the target again and ascertain their status.

• 4:38 a.m., Coast Guard situation report: Sector N.C. reports that Bounty is abandoning ship. C-130 remains on-scene and is passing operational and position updates. Air Station Elizabeth City is launching an H-60 [helicopter] and is calling in a second H-60 crew. Weather: Wind ENE 40 knots, seas 18 feet, air 68 degrees F, water 68 degrees F, visibility 1 nautical mile.

• Coast Guard situation update: The persons on board the Bounty have abandoned ship into two 25-person life rafts. All were wearing survival suits. Two H-60 helicopters from Air Station Elizabeth City are en route, and cutter Elm is preparing to possibly get under way from Morehead City, N.C., to provide surface asset response.

• Further update: Sector N.C. reported that two MH-60 helicopters and one C-130 from Air Station Elizabeth City are on-scene with tall ship Bounty. Fourteen of the 16 crew members are accounted for. Six persons have been hoisted by the MH-60 and rescue operations continue.

• Update: Sector N.C. reported the 14 recovered crewmembers are being debriefed at Air Station Elizabeth City. Two were transported to a local hospital with injuries (back pain and a possible broken arm). Crew debrief indicated the vessel took a heavy roll while the crew was embarking to the life rafts, and all of them went into the water. The two missing crewmembers were confirmed to be the captain and a deckhand. Their families have been notified.

• Update to Vice Admiral Robert Parker, commander Atlantic Area: Survival time is 120 hours in a survival suit. I haven’t gotten the final info from survivor debriefs, and we are still in a little “haze of war” but offer these two vignettes: 1. One survivor saw a light in the water going down and fading away when the Bounty sank, which the survivor identified as a light on a survival suit. 2. Some survivors speculate that the two missing might have been caught in rigging based on when they last saw them and where they were as Bounty capsized.

• Update on search for survivors: Sector N.C. reported an Air Station Elizabeth City MH-60 helicopter recovered one of the two unaccounted-for crewmembers [Claudene Christian] 7 nautical miles from the vessel’s original position. The helicopter reported conducting CPR, and the crewmember had no vital signs. The helicopter is en route to a local hospital. Next of kin notification has been made.

* * *

• News release on discontinuing the search for Capt. Walbridge, Nov. 1: Coast Guard crews searched more than 90 hours, covering approximately 12,000 overlapping square nautical miles in the Atlantic Ocean since the Bounty’s crew abandoned ship [Oct. 29]. The following Coast Guard assets assisted in the search: HC-130 Hercules air crews from Elizabeth City, N.C., and Clearwater, Fla.; MH-60 Jayhawk crew from Air Station Elizabeth City; Coast Guard HC-144 Ocean Sentry crew from Miami; crew aboard the cutter Elm, a 225-foot buoy tender home-ported in Atlantic Beach, N.C.; and crew aboard the cutter Gallatin, a 378-foot high-endurance cutter home-ported in Charleston, S.C.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Walbridge and Christian families,” said Capt. Doug Cameron, chief of incident response for the 5th District.

See related article:

- Hearings convene

March 2013 issue